Sports movies, like history, tend to be written by the victors. The Hollywood canon is packed with stories about winning – against all odds, at all costs, when it’s all on the line, in as noble and ruggedly masculine a fashion as possible. It’s the domain of guys like Burt Reynolds, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone and Dwayne Johnson. But films such as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider are showing us the flipside of this mentality, which is not only that somebody has to lose, but that this stuff can really mess you up. You could call that more of an anti-sports movie, but given the cliches of the genreand a certain instability in ideas of American masculinity, there’s often a more interesting story.
The Rider is about rodeo, as all-American a realm as you could find. But our hero, Brady, is a young rider facing early retirement after an awful head injury. In one painful scene, he goes to visit his friend Lane in hospital. Lane’s rodeo career was also cut short by brain injury. Together they watch YouTube footage of Lane’s glory days as a cocksure young champ. Now Lane is a paraplegic who can only move one hand. What makes it all the more poignant is that this is not really fiction. Brady Jandreau and Lane Scott are real-life ex-rodeo riders essentially playing themselves.
Other sports have been undergoing a similar re-examination lately. In 2015 we had Concussion, with Will Smith portraying the real-life doctor who exposed chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a brain disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries, especially American footballers. The NFL didn’t like his findings in real life, nor did they like the movie. There was also Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, a ravaged veteran whose real opponent was his dodgy heart. The forthcoming Creed II augurs similar stakes, with Michael B Jordan all beat up and nearly dead – though with Drago Junior to defeat, you just know he’s getting back in that ring. Apollo Creed’s death in Rocky IV, incidentally, was over in a matter of minutes, sparing us the reality of feeding tubes and rehab clinics. The Rider also brings to mind Lucy Walker’s sobering documentary The Crash Reel, where it’s a young snowboarding champ who suffers a near-fatal head trauma.
In each case, the message is “this stuff can really mess you up”, yet these men are all drawn back to the sport that threatens to destroy them. You could see such films as an assault on traditional, American masculine ideals, orchestrated by nerdy liberals who always sucked at sports anyway (raises hand guiltily), but really it’s a suggestion that other versions of manliness are now available. You don’t have to sacrifice health and family at the altar of contact sport. Sometimes, as with The Rider, the most heroic thing of all is not getting back on the horse.
The Rider is in UK cinemas from Friday
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